Fall on San Juan Island is not only breathtakingly beautiful, it is also unrushed and lends itself so nicely to slow down and really explore. On our last visit we took the time to delve into American Camp, the vast National Historical Park on the south end of San Juan Island. We were not disappointed.
Visitor’s Center & Granny’s Cove
When you first enter American Camp, park by the visitor’s center and explore the gorgeous outdoor and indoor exhibits. Elaborate murals, timelines and interactive displays tell the story of the Coast Salish, pre-contact to present, reframing and deepening not only the understanding of history and treaty rights, but also of native life today.
Then take a stroll to the original American Camp barracks and learn about the pig war and the joint occupation of San Juan Island until the water boundary between the British and the Americans were settled in 1872.
Follow the signs to Granny’s Cove, a lovely, crescent shaped cove with a sandy beach and the perfect place for a picnic.
From Granny’s Cove walk south along the rugged cliffs through the vast prairie, dotted with the occasional interpretive sign. In Fall the rose thickets and Hawthorns are loaded with bright red berries, the Winter food for the many birds calling this place their home. You’ll see Bald Eagles, foxes and bunnies frolicking, as well as the rare, green and white Island Marble Butterfly. Remember to give wildlife space. Find your own private driftwood beach along the way or simply walk for miles with the wind in your hair.
Keep walking to reach South Beach (or drive there, it’s about 2.5 miles from the visitor’s center), San Juan Island’s longest and most dramatic beach. South Beach features picnic tables, fire rings and bathrooms, driftwood castles, tide pools and tons of wildlife. See otters and seals, sea lions and whales and every seabird you have ever heard of. This is the place to be at dusk when the sun sets over the snow-covered Olympic Mountains and the moon rises over Mt Finlayson. Have a bonfire and sip hot coco, while listening to the waves.
4th of July Beach, Jakles Lagoon & Mt Finlayson
On a stormy day, consider exploring the east side of American Camp, which is sheltered from harsh weather by dense forest and Mt Finlayson. Park at Jakles Lagoon, explore the beaches and lagoons (there are three total) and listen to the sea lions howl. Treat yourself to the 4 mile loop to the summit of Mt Finlayson. The view is simply stunning. On clear days you can see all the way to Mt Rainier.
Cattle Point Lighthouse
By now you have seen Cattle Point Lighthouse beckon on the southern tip of the isle. Drive or hike there for a close up look and the best birding. The lighthouse overlooks the Strait of Juan de Fuca where the Haro Straits meet the San Juan Channel, making the water look like it’s boiling at times. You can hear, thankfully not smell, the sea lion colony living on a large rock in the distance. Watch your step exploring the primitive trails along very steep cliffs and leave only footprints.